Some people were forced to work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, others sadly lost their jobs - but sometimes from a crisis, new opportunities can spring.
With Cambodia putting a hold on tourist visas and air passenger numbers plummeting, the tourism and hospitality industries have arguably felt the financial pinch of Covid-19 more than most. The dramatic decrease in tourist numbers have put restaurant and hotel owners in a tight spot, and forced some to shut while the pandemic continues.
In the first six months of 2020, only around 1.4 million foreign tourists visited Cambodia.
A drastic drop compared to the numbers during the same period in 2019, where just over 3 million tourists visited the Kingdom, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
For those in the hospitality industry that have felt the full force of the pandemic, it has become a question of soldier on, minimize operations or even shutter up until the pandemic blows over. This has meant that a large swathe of Cambodia’s workforce have found themselves on minimum hours, or even having to forge a new career.
Meas Saroeun, former head chef at Friends the Restaurant, lost her decade-long career back in April, after the restaurant shut its doors. That same month, only 4841 foreigners arrived in Cambodia.
Friends the Restaurant is a charity concept kitchen, run by Mith Samlanh to train cooking skills in both Khmer and Western cuisine. The mission of the organization is to support and provide parentless and street children a proper career path through the society.
But the restaurant relied heavily on foreign tourists and when Covid-19 came, the tourists stopped. In no time, 70 employees at the restaurant were put out of work.
“It was drastic – from a busy and famous restaurant, filled with tourists, it became a quiet restaurant really quickly,” said Saroeun. “During the heyday, on average, we would welcome up to 350 tourists per day. When Covid-19 hit, the tourist customers dropped to only six per day…”
Saroeun was one of the many orphanages of Mith Somlanh. She joined the organization when she was 16 year old and among the vocational training skills given by the organization, she chose to pursue western food cooking.
Later, she became the head chef’s assistant, in 2008, before being promoted to head chef and cooking trainer, in what has been a career in food that has lasted 12 years.
“Usually, at 11 am, tourists would start to come in and at that time, I would start happily cooking,” said Saroeun. “But on the first day after being laid off, I sat blankly at home, not knowing what to do next.”
The thought of losing her career never crossed her mind, considering how well the restaurant had been performing. At first, she did not dare to tell her family about her being laid off because she needed to repay the bank, using her monthly income. All of a sudden, her life had been turned upside down.
“Before requesting a loan, we were sure that we had a stable monthly income to pay them back,” Saroeun explained. “But, with my sudden job loss, I worry about repaying the bank loan.”
With her western cooking skills and experience, she applied to work for four different restaurants after being laid off, but struggled to get any concrete offers of employment.
Saroeun believes that maybe her specific skills aren’t needed during a time with little westerners. “I specialize in western food. So, when there are no western tourists, I cannot put my skills to use,” she said. “It forced me to have a serious talk with my husband about what to do next.”
The former chef spoke of her gratitude to the support of her husband and expressed her solidarity with those also affected. “I think Covid-19 affected everyone severely, especially the breadwinner, who works to support the family alone,” Saroeun said. “I am lucky to have my husband who helped me establish a new career path.”
The fact that she has to pay the bank almost $700 per month makes it difficult for Saroeun to stay at home and earn no income, so she decided to change tack and the situation forced her to start doing something to lighten her husband’s burden.
Saroeun now runs a small clothing store, formerly run by her husband, in Samnang 12 market. Besides the shop floor itself, she also runs an online store, too. The chef-turned-business woman says that the pay she now receives is not too different to what she got before and she acknowledges that self-employment does provide her with more freedom.
However, cooking is what Saroeun is really passionate about and she does not plan to leave behind her hard-earned skills. “I will not give up cooking because I studied hard for it,” she said. “When the Covid-19 situation gets better and there are tourists back, I might not go back to work for others. But, I plan to put my skill to use by running an online restaurant for westerners with delivery service.”